Tuesday, October 31, 2006

A Halloween Story: Finding Dead People on Your PDA

Driving along a lonely stretch of Roosevelt Road, Julie Gilberto heard a familiar ding! coming from her cell phone. Only this time, it wasn't a nice restaurant or coffee place that her personal navigation had spotted.

It was Al Capone. That Al Capone.

“I hate to say this,” she confessed, “but some of the dead people who show up on my phone are a lot more interesting than the live ones.”

It's not exactly that the legendary and long-deceased mob boss was phoning from his tomb. Rather, Gilberto had downloaded the “Find A Grave” spot guide that uses global positioning to detect the resting places of America's most famous criminals, actors, polticians, sports heroes, and those who otherwise made history.

“Finding famous graves is hobby that gets you out and about, away from your computer, exploring a city and its cemeteries,” says Jim Tipton, founder and keeper of FindaAGrave.com, and now, the Famous Graves mobile “spot guide.”

“Now you can search the database wherever you go.”

With a reported 20 million views a month, FindAGrave.com's basic cemetery search, its surname index, discussion forums, photos and “posthumous reunions” attests that the fascination about the departed and their last known whereabouts is indeed set in stone.

“These people are passionate about movie actors, civil war (soldiers), US presidents,” he said. His own interest stirred more than 10 years ago, when he, too, happened by Capone's grave.

“I was just taken with the fact that I was standing just six feet away from this icon,” Tipton recalls. He began noting and filing, and when he opened his website in 1995, he discovered he was not alone.

Determined gravers, as they are known, often tote cartons of files as they make their rounds, researching, making rubbings of tombstone epitaphs, or posing for pictures. Now, Tipton says, with this new mobile technology, they can lay all the drudgery to rest. All the bios, locations and miscellania is digital.

“Famous Graves” sells for a tad under $10 as a “spot guide.” It comes with Earthcomber, a free mapping and interest search program that most people use to find movies, coffee shops, ATMs and other locations for the living.

Each Famous Graves listing has a star rating given by popular vote from the website, along with some intriguing bios, a map, and, well...contact information. (In the case of comedian John A. Belushi, the guide notes, his actual grave was moved from beneath his headstone to an unlisted number in the back of Elmwood Cemetery in River Grove, Ill., following an attempted grave robbery.)

Gilberto easily dug up five-star winner Abraham Lincoln, who remains not on the Mall in Washington, but at Oak Ridge Cemetery in his hometown, Springfield Ill. Two more taps on her screen, and Gilberto found Hall of Fame shortstop Lou Boudreau, a four-star favorite, rests in Frankfort Ill., his number 5 jersey retired from the Cleveland Indians.

It's got the “other” Chris Farley (the lawman killed in pursuit of Lincoln assassin John Wilkes Booth), brewmeister August “Gussie” Busch, as well as presidential grandfather Prescott Bush.

The mobile program packs enough juicy bits and history, Tipton says, and its easy navigation makes it appealing enough, for anyone to use as a car quiz game for long road trips, or an educational tool. For Tipton, though, it's a gift from above.

“I can't count the number of times I've been away from the computer, out in the community, and wished I had been able to search and see whose grave was around me,” he said. “Now, the thought of visiting a city and finding who's out there...it's that sense of proximity, the thrill of the hunt.”

The FindaAGrave.com “Famous Graves” guide can be found on http://www.earthcomber.com/ , which also provides free maps, mobile software and location information for any US city.